We recently sat down with Richard Fumerton and Diane Jeske (University of Iowa), the editors of Introducing Philosophy Through Film: Key Texts, Discussion, and Film Selections. In this brief interview, they tell us how the book is different from other introductory texts in its class, and about the great reaction the book is already getting in teaching situations.
Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write Introducing Philosophy Through Film?
We discovered over the past several years that we were very often talking about movies in our classes to illustrate more vividly some of the thought experiments that are such an important part of so much of analytic philosophy. We noticed that students immediately seem to become more engaged as soon as they could relate the philosophical reading to something that they are already used to talking about in more informal contexts with their friends
What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
The book contains readings that give students a really sound introduction to most of the main areas of contemporary philosophy. It differs from standard introductory texts by pairing those readings with philosophically interesting films that touch upon the same topics. So, for example, readings on classical problems of perception, including the famous dream and evil demon arguments considered by Descartes, can obviously be paired with films like The Matrix or Total Recall. The latter explicitly involves a hero who must attempt to figure out whether his experiences are “real” or are hallucinations induced by a futuristic machine that can modify the brain so as to duplicate veridical experiences. In the field of ethics, philosophers have long argued about whether there can be special obligations created by love and friendship, obligations that can trump more ordinary sorts of considerations about the positive and negative consequences of actions on everyone. Again, readings on these topics can be wonderfully paired with movies that explore the same themes. In The Third Man, for example, one character obviously takes her special relationship to trump any consequentialist considerations—another, while torn, eventually goes the other way.
Thought experiments in philosophical writings are sometimes criticized for lacking the kind of detail that (some would argue) is needed for the reader to draw the inferences the author wants. Movies are not only pedagogically useful, but they answer this criticism by painting hypothetical situations in wonderfully nuanced ways.
And what is it that draws you both to the topic?
Frankly, we both love movies, we love teaching, and we really enjoy the chance to get students really involved in philosophy by combining these interests. As a side benefit, it is really fun to see students engage some of the older movies that were made before they were born, some of which are really wonderful films.
What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?
Many of our TA’s are already using the text in their introduction to philosophy classes and apparently they are getting exactly the reaction we had hoped. Their students love talking about the films and through the films the philosophy.
What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
Primarily undergraduates without an extensive background in philosophy. But the book would be fun to read for anyone who has wondered about what philosophy is all about, and who also enjoys movies.
Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
Richard: Not really—I’m the only person I agree with completely.
Diane: Harry Potter — I’d have my own private jet.
What’s your current project? What’s next?
We are working on an anthology in political philosophy, one that emphasizes not just theory but applications of theory to real life controversies.